Please note that the following article is informed by the opinions of individuals sharing their lived experiences. We acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives and welcome your input to help us create an informed strategy to overcome systemic racism.
We recently hosted an emotionally charged, raw, and real webinar with a group of anti-racism educators and activists to gain a glimpse into the roles racism and discrimination play in their lives in Canada. They shared suggestions to help us — both as professionals at BCcampus and as individuals across the province — to become effective allies in the war against racism.
Post by BCcampus’ editorial team
At BCcampus, we are not experts in matters of racism. We do not know how to solve this locally visible and globally impacting issue, but we are willing to learn. We’re eager to help, and we are passionate about making the teaching and learning space in B.C. one that is welcoming and accessible to every individual in the province. We are allies-in-training, and you’re invited to bring your mind, your body, and your voice to the cause. As Maya Angelou beautifully said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
On August 18, a group of anti-racism educators and activists convened via Zoom to discuss what is required of a person with privilege to be and become an ally to Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC). The 90-minute session, titled Answering the Call to Being and Becoming an Ally, is rich with personal experiences, delivered by folx with extensive first-hand knowledge of oppression, systemic racism, and discrimination. It’s a powerful presentation that will lead you to consider your current position on racism in Canada, with the message that sitting idly by is not now — nor was it ever — an acceptable option. You are either vocally and actively working to stop discrimination in Canada, or you support it: there’s no middle ground.
At BCcampus, we recognize that we are fortunate. We have privilege. We have support: financial from the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, and emotional through our network of educators and scholars, faculty and staff. We are fortunate to have vocal proponents who help us improve the student learning experience through open education and by eliminating barriers to education, whether they’re physical, technological, or systemic. Webinar host, Dr. Kyra Garson, commented, “In the academic hierarchy, the higher you go, the paler it gets.” At BCcampus, we acknowledge that we are inherently pale, and the fact that this is reflected across the sector is one of the biggest barriers to change in education. We cannot overcome white privilege until we acknowledge its pervasive presence. We know that this is not a quick transformation, but we are enthusiastically and continuously working toward becoming an ally, understanding that it’s an activity, not a goal.
This article contains dialogue from the webinar, as well as from individual conversations held to inform this post. We do not and cannot speak for these people, but we can provide them with a platform to help the rest of the sector hear their voices, acknowledge their experiences, and work with us to make it better.
The session featured guests with a great variety of perspectives, including:
- Harminder Padda, a second-year student in the Bachelor of Science in nursing program at Thompson Rivers University
- Rohene Bouajram, program director, Global Campus Initiatives at the University of British Columbia
- Dr. Moussa Magassa, human rights education advisor and specialist in equity, diversity, inclusion and partnerships at the University of Victoria
- Dr. Justin Wilson, Aboriginal Studies department coordinator at Langara College, amongst many other roles
- Dr. Amie McLean, acting manager of equity, diversity and inclusion curriculum for work-integrated learning at Simon Fraser University
- Dr. Sae Hoon Stan Chung is a Korean Canadian writer, academic, and consultant
- Dr. Kyra Garson (webinar host), intercultural coordinator in the Faculty of Student Development at Thompson Rivers University
“The selection of people for this webinar was very intentional,” explained Kyra. “We wanted different perspectives, regions, and lived experiences. It’s clear that racialized oppression and its intersections are really visible to many of us, but not so visible to all of us.”
Racism in Canada
As Canadians, we like to think we’re a mosaic of cultures, embracing and accepting of other cultures and beliefs. In reality, this is patently false.
“In a country that was ruled by colonial powers, i.e., Zimbabwe, where I am from, racism was very much at the forefront: you could see it, understand it, and act upon it,” shared Rohene. “In Canada, it’s not the same. Racism is very subtle, sophisticated, and devastating, to the point that it makes individuals, particularly marginalized and oppressed individuals, feel as if what they’re seeing, experiencing, and feeling isn’t truly happening. And that is something we do need to change.”
“Every incident of racism is THE incident,” said Moussa. “There is no small one, there is no big one. Racism is compounded. It is everyday oppression. We need to fight it from the centre. The Black Lives Matter movement means you can’t sit and watch anymore. We all have to do something, and the most important thing we can do in our institutions is to challenge the racist policies that are in place. The concept of good fit/bad fit: we need to talk about it, and we must deconstruct the concept of them and us.”
Inaction is Tacit Approval
By pretending that racism is not an issue, we are silently allowing — encouraging — it to continue. Ignoring the protests and requests of oppressed people, standing by when you see workplace bullying or brigading, and delaying your support until you’re in a more comfortable scenario is tantamount to actively subjugating those you mean to support.
“If you see something and you know it’s wrong, and you don’t do anything, that’s an issue in itself,” said Harminder. “You might feel uncomfortable in this situation, because it is uncomfortable, even if you aren’t the victim. They might be awkward conversations, and you’ll definitely have to step outside of your comfort zone to initiate them, but they’re crucial so change can happen. People are witnessing things but staying quiet, which happens all the time, and this makes change that much harder. As uncomfortable as you might feel addressing the situation, because you’re worried that because you’re not a member of that group, you can’t address it, you should address it anyways. It’s better to say something than to stay quiet. Everyone will appreciate it, especially those who happen to be in these situations. If they have voices to back them up, it provides a lot of value.”
“Allyship is about emotional commitment,” said Rohene. “As a Black woman, particularly in the hierarchy of educational institutions, the structure, the tables, the places of hierarchy were not made for my voices, my ideas, my intellectual opinions, or simply me. I’m constantly reminded of that on a daily basis, particularly in meetings when I provide an idea. The reaction I’m going for is enthusiasm and agreement, especially if it’s a good idea. What I often get is nods, as a way of being complacent, or silence. And when I leave the meeting, someone will often come to me and say, ‘Are you OK? That was a really good idea.’ While I appreciate that emotional commitment post-meeting, I don’t need it then. What I need is in the meeting for you to validate my idea, particularly if it was a good one. That’s when it will be most powerful, most relevant, and most impactful. And that, to me, is allyship in its truest form.”
The Rewards of Allyship
“When we talk about allyship, it’s really a long-term commitment,” said Rohene. “It’s an admission of the invisibility of structural and systemic racism. There is no formal acknowledgement of being an ally.”
“Allyship means that you continue to show up in the ways you’re able to,” said Amie. “It’s not only when certain eyes are on you, or something you can leave behind when you leave the office or your home. It’s something that needs to be present in all aspects of your life. That can be really difficult, and often comes at a cost. Moussa made this point well in the webinar: he doesn’t have the choice to step away. When we are in positions of privilege, part of that privilege is being able to pretend that something hasn’t happened, or to choose not to say something, or to choose not to be quiet and give somebody else room to speak. When we talk about the costs of allyship, we need to recognize that often people of privilege can benefit from allyship. Many people have spoken about allyship as a performance, and the problematics of that when it basically becomes diversity branding. Given the real costs of oppression are heavily borne by people who are members of equity-seeking groups, it’s pretty inappropriate to talk about the cost of allyship when you’re in a position of privilege. With those caveats, I do sometimes think about the costs, the challenges, the difficulties of allyship. Perhaps we can think about it as an important metric, in the sense that if you are accruing nothing but benefits from the ways that you act as an ally, you might want to check your practices. We live in a profoundly oppressive, white supremacist society, and in my experience, if you consistently show up in all the ways that you can be imperfectly trying to be an ally, it comes at a cost. But if we don’t, we’re just shuffling the price off to someone else, for whom the cost will be all the higher.”
Amplifying, Not Altering
A vital part of being an ally is using your channels, connections, and influence to help the voices of the oppressed be heard above the noise — not speaking for them, but boosting them so that their voices can carry further, faster.
“There needs to be a collaboration across cultures,” said Harminder, “bringing voices together so change can be initiated. I’d love to see more conversations and more webinars. From a student’s perspective, participating in this webinar, learning what scholars have to say about this topic was such an eye-opener. It honestly gives you hope to see people in these positions fighting for the right things. If participating in this made me feel this way, it will help many other students build hope, knowing there are people they can reach out to: people out there trying to make change happen. The more, the better.”
Becoming an Ally
“As allies, we are blind to the impact of systemic racism,” explained Stan. “We must first deeply learn about the historical situation of ourselves and the communities with which we want to support.
“Being a keyboard warrior isn’t the way to fight oppression, but it might be a way to begin. Facebook posts and marches are a good start, but our institutions require a strategic and cultural shift, particularly when our institutions support our own advancement and blindly oppress those who don’t fit the majority view and culture.”
“Allyship is a verb,” said Amie. “It’s a thing that is done and has to be continued to be done over and over. Allyship can’t be something you do for a pat on the back or a superficial one-off. It means doing that solidarity work every day. For white folx like me, answering the call really involves taking responsibility for the operation of oppression, racism, and white supremacy within my communities and within my institution.”
Harminder shared his perspective as a student. “What makes an ally? For me, it comes down to the thinking that drives the actions. For a professor to be an ally for me, I need to see that an individual is willing to get outside of their comfort zone, go out of their way to learn about my personal perspective, aside from whatever their own experiences might be. This comes through asking questions, actively listening, and engaging in meaningful conversations.”
Education Got Us into this Mess
“As academics, we love to have our models and be informed by the literature,” said Justin. “In terms of being informed as scholars, it’s understanding power. Understanding how knowledge can be weaponized, such as pathology or deficit. Instead of seeing individuals who have been racialized, objectified, or sexualized in terms of deficit pathology, we need to focus on their resiliency and their strength. You have a lot of power in the classroom, and when you’re speaking about things, you need to be able to see the sacredness of that human being in front of you, and teach with love, kindness, and compassion, understanding that non-violent communication and microaggressions can oftentimes be very subtle. Reconciliation and truth should be transformative for the people in your classroom. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of awareness to do that.”
“We need a baseline,” continued Justin. “If it’s important, we’ll measure it. Just like the systemic racism being called out in the RCMP and in our health care system — specifically, the incredible work being done with the First Nations Health Authority health authority for cultural humility and safety — we need to have a national task force to look at the systemic barriers, opportunities, and interventions that can be done inside post-secondary institutions.”
“What can we do about this? If the intersection between Indigenization and internationalization is important, then we need to start having community-based metrics — a dashboard — to gauge the working conditions Indigenous faculty and staff experience as they seek to operationalize principles from the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act needed to enhance the cultural and spiritual integrity of Indigenous cultures, spirituality, and epistemologies. Right now, there are far too many Indigenous and BIPOC academics who feel isolated, victims of organizational violence and mobbing when they speak truth to collegial supremacy inside our institutions. As scholars, I’d like to think we’re smart enough to do better, but this can’t happen until structural racism is acknowledged inside British Columbia post-secondary institutions and BIPOC faculty are provided whistle-blower protection. Canadians want more from us in terms of what we can contribute as scholars. That is what the scholarly relationship is about: trust in our collegial contributions, our academic, and our Indigenous cultural freedom to look at presenting options for a better future, for everybody, today.”
Our reliance on technology can be problematic, as we discovered through the machine-generated closed captioning we provided for this webinar. We discovered that the software was not capable of handling non-English names and words, nor adept at captioning speakers employing English as an additional language. We apologize for any errors the captions may contain. To report any errors that obscure meaning, please send details (including the name of the video, URL, suggested correction, and time code) to email@example.com.
“When you hear my voice, and you see my face, please be reminded that you can’t know the experience of another person. You can’t know their oppression. But you can critically interrogate your own ancestry and unearth your own complicity. You can learn about the historical, ancestral circumstances between you and Black people, Indigenous people, oppressed people everywhere.”—Dr. Sae Hoon Stan Chung, Korean Canadian writer, academic, and consultant
“Racism is our business and our responsibility, all of us. We need to fight it from the centre.”—Dr. Moussa Magassa, human rights education advisor and specialist in equity, diversity, inclusion and partnerships at the University of Victoria
“When it comes to white folx helping those who come from a Black community, it’s not about having white people lead the way, it’s about having Black people leading, with people of other colours there to support them.”—Harminder Padda, student, Thompson Rivers University
“What does it mean to be an ally? You have to be prepared to grab a paddle, hop in the canoe, and row. Share the load. Share the emotional and spiritual labour associated with things eroding my vibrancy as an Indigenous scholar. If you want the culture, you have to be prepared to lean into the community-based intersectional struggle.”—Dr. Justin Wilson, Aboriginal Studies department coordinator, Langara College
“While you, me, we, may never fully understand the lived experience of marginalized people, standing alongside them also means amplifying their voices in a way that you’re not leading their voice, nor lagging behind. Both of those actions are a subtle form of oppression, and in many cases, performative allyship.”—Rohene Bouajram, program director, Global Campus Initiatives, University of British Columbia
“We need to make plans to create space for actual dialogue and real training opportunities that can move beyond, allowing for engagement with cultural safety and proper protocols in place. Following this webinar, I’d like to see the learning shared out, and I hope the conversations continue and really spur meaningful change.”—Dr. Amie McLean, acting manager of equity, diversity and inclusion curriculum for work-integrated learning at Simon Fraser University